Opinion: Bad religion

Religion should take election years off.

As soon as the presidential campaigns get under way, religion should just go to Cancun and wait them out.

Otherwise, inevitably, it gets used.

These past few weeks have provided textbook examples of how faith can be manipulated to score political points, to wedge apart voting blocs, to sow discord.

The first holy war was over contraception. Republicans and Catholic leaders followed presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich into battle over an Obama administration mandate that employers’ health insurance coverage, including religiously affiliated hospitals and schools, cover the cost of birth control.

You’d have thought the sultan was at the gates of Vienna. Former Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson called the mandate the greatest government attack on the Catholic Church of the past two centuries. Never mind that it wasn’t exactly a new idea: As MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow pointed out, 28 states already require that health insurance plans cover contraception; eight states do not exempt churches from that requirement, including New York, whose Roman Catholic archbishop Timothy Dolan led the crusade against the administration. In fact, in December 2000, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had already ruled that companies with 15 or more employees offering employees coverage for prescription drugs without providing birth control coverage were in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prevents discrimination on the basis of sex.

But December 2000 was just after a presidential election.

Some religious leaders claimed it was a matter of “religious freedom” to keep government from demanding that faith-affiliated employers provide any service that contradicts their beliefs. That prompted one anonymous scribe to compose a brilliant piece of haiku:

Small bus’ness owners /Join Christian Science churches / Drop health coverage

Lost in much of the partisan tussle is the idea that the Constitution defends the right to practice one’s religion, not the unmitigated freedom to impose it.

In the midst of the birth control debate, two more vile things surfaced in religion’s name. 

A speech Santorum delivered in 2010 came to light, in which he weighed in on John F. Kennedy’s 1960 speech on the separation of church and state:  

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish,” Kennedy famously said, “where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source —where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials —and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

Santorum said the speech made him want to “throw up.” 

Then, just over a week ago, Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh hyped the religious outrage over the birth control debate by lambasting a private citizen, a Georgetown University law school student named Sandra Fluke, who had dared to exercise her Constitutional rights by testifying before Congress in support of the contraceptive care mandate.  Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

What is it about religion that, when it enters the political arena, we are suddenly arguing over vomit, sluts and prostitutes?

Many pundits refer to these debates as “social issues” and the battles they stir up as “culture wars.” But these are, at heart, religious wars. 

The media doesn’t portray them as such, because most journalists remain intensely uncomfortable discussing religion. Just 8 percent of journalists at national media outlets said they attend church or synagogue weekly, according to a 2007 Pew Research Center for the People and the Press survey. Almost 30 percent said they never attend services, in contrast to the 39 percent of Americans who say they attend religious services weekly.

So partisans use religion to score points and win votes, and the press is ill equipped to cover the issue. Abortion, contraception, school vouchers — the conversations on all these issues stem from deeply held religious beliefs.

There’s more. While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has officially banned the ongoing Mormon practice of proxy baptism, some rogue members of the church continue to gain headlines by “baptizing” notable deceased Jews and their relatives. Holocaust survivor and author Elie Wiesel called on presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who is a practicing Mormon, to condemn the practice, creating a new religious test for candidates: They must now represent not just their policies, but their entire church.

Even the Iran nuclear issue — at center stage at last weekend’s AIPAC conference and at the White House meeting between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week— is enmeshed in religion. Those who think it’s critical for Israel or the U.S. to take military action sooner rather than later fear that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s deeply held belief in the 12th, or hidden, Imam, will spur him to use his nukes to bring about an apocalypse.

Santorum had it almost exactly reversed when he said we live in a country where “only people of non-faith can come into the public square and make their case.” The truth is, the public square is boisterous with true believers. That’s a good thing —faith can make for stronger communities and better lives. 

But the key is to understand that in a free society, the final vote must go not to faith, but to reason.